The White House is placing a higher priority on stormwater and the establishment of green infrastructure to address it, say those who attended a conference on stormwater and green infrastructure last week in Washington, DC.
Funding is one barrier between that increased interest and implementing initiatives.
The next step will be for conference organizers to start developing a white paper detailing funding options, says conference participant Elisa Speranza, president of CH2M Hill. “Many potential funding options were discussed, including expansion of local stormwater utilities, public-private partnership, leveraging private capital, and building green incentives into existing federal and state funding programs,” she says.
The White House conference, “Municipal Stormwater Infrastructure: Going from Grey to Green,” gathered key stakeholders from the federal, state, local, private, and nonprofit sectors to examine the benefits of wider implementation of green infrastructure, address municipal stormwater management needs, identify barriers, and evaluate options for practical action, Speranza says.
An increasing federal interest in green infrastructure was signaled by presence of high-level government officials such as Nancy Sutley, who serves as the principal environmental policy advisor to the President and chairs the Council on Environmental Quality, as well as her colleague Jay Jensen, associate director for Land and Water Ecosystems for the council.
In addition, the presence of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Nancy Stoner, the acting assistant administrator for water, and Bob Perciasepe, EPA’s deputy administrator, symbolized an increasing federal interest in green infrastructure.
Many of the conference participants have known each other through previous associations, notes Alexandra Dunn, executive director and general counsel for the Association of Clean Water Administrators.
“What is new this time is having the White House and the EPA together convening the forum and bringing together all of the different levels of the federal government to hear about what’s going on and think about how they can support these initiatives,” she says.
Matt Millea agrees. “It was really motivating and encouraging to see such a high level of support from the Obama administration and all of the officials at EPA and DEQ who were there,” says Millea, deputy county executive for Onondaga County, NY, and past president of the Council of Infrastructure Financing Agencies.
“It was a great statement from the White House that this was absolutely a high priority for the administration,” he adds. “We’ve had great champions in the EPA—especially with Lisa Jackson, Bob Perciasepe, and Nancy Stoner on the issues—but what we certainly heard goes broader than individuals to being a full-blown administration priority.”
Participants discussed the benefits of and barriers to municipal green infrastructure and successful examples from throughout the United States, as well as opportunities for funding future projects.
The group also identified actions needed to remove barriers to establishing green infrastructure and define implementation steps going forward.
Growing Awareness of Green Infrastructure
Speranza says she believes a shift toward green infrastructure has been taking place over time. “There seems to be a growing awareness that green approaches are not just ‘nice to do,’ but actually are more effective, more comprehensive, and save money in the long run,” she says.
Dunn says she believes the White House is putting a higher priority on sustainable cities. “We know that urbanization is a trend and that more Americans are living in urbanized areas,” she says. “The White House may be looking at this from the point of sustainability in United States’ cities, particularly as they grow.”
During the conference, Dunn focused her remarks on how state regulators are supporting community initiatives to bring green infrastructure projects to life. She also addressed the synergies resulting from the projects.
“They often come to life as a water-quality-related project, but I’ve done some writing and research over the years on the incidental benefits from green infrastructure, such as improved air quality, crime reduction, and urban farming as well as energy savings,” Dunn says.
Dunn says she sees a shift toward green infrastructure in many modern cities across the globe. “It’s becoming expected and the norm in new development. What I think we have to struggle with in the United States and in other older cities are retrofits.”
Katherine Baer, senior director for American Rivers, agrees there is a nationwide fundamental shift toward green infrastructure, noting that more cities are starting to integrate it into their programs, with support coming from local governments, utilities, and nonprofit groups.
Case in point: Durham, NC, has received an EPA grant to develop a comprehensive plan for how green infrastructure can help its clean water needs.
American Rivers works with the Water Environment Federation and the Association of Landscape Architects to detail out and demonstrate some of the wide variety of benefits the community receives through green infrastructure, including flood reduction and energy efficiencies.
“There is interest in trying to figure out that, given there are such broad benefits, how do we get others to use green infrastructure, because it has benefits beyond those to clean water,” Baer says.
Barriers: Funding and a Cultural Shift
Conference participants say two of the biggest barriers moving forward are financing and a cultural shift from traditional methods to emerging approaches and technologies.
Philadelphia water commissioner Howard Neukrug notes that the critical issue of green infrastructure use by cities is maturing from one of feasibility, practicality, and how to regulate to a conversation on how the federal government can support the green infrastructure movement in cities.
Dunn points out the current economic climate makes it difficult for the federal government to infuse green infrastructure initiatives with funding, however.
A key element to the discussion has now turned to innovative financing approaches using public and private funding and investments, Neukrug adds.
Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District and chairperson of the Urban Water Sustainability Council, Clean Water America Alliance, facilitated a panel discussion on funding.
“We heard that there are a number of mechanisms that could be used, whether it’s just expanding the use of the state revolving funds [SRF] program to fund some of these initiatives or public-private partnerships,” he says.
Milwaukee is planning incentives for funding a large portion or all of its improvements, such as is done in Philadelphia.
Millea, who served on the same panel, says the discussion didn’t focus on securing federal government funding, but expanded to a wide variety of potential options. “It was about how we—in the capital-constrained environment we’re in—can maximize funding opportunities and provide for the right funding mechanism so we can advance these projects,” he says, noting that there is a great deal of nationwide momentum for green infrastructure.
Discussions centered on how communities can set up appropriate rate structures for stormwater fees or use low-cost SRF loans to finance some projects.
“We’ve got a great example nationwide when we look at the work that Philadelphia has done to set up a fee structure that charges property owners for impervious surfaces and also incentivizes them to remove those impervious surfaces and reduce their fees,” Millea says.
Cleveland has worked to put a stormwater fee system in place beginning in January, he adds.
Millea addressed the panel on work being done in Onondaga County. “We have a lot of great green projects in the ground,” he says. “We’re working on some significant stormwater capture projects on the grey side as well. What I focused on in the financing side is how we hope to marry our green infrastructure and our grey infrastructure projects together and finance them through the State Revolving Fund as a singular solution to the CSO problems we have in Onondega County.”
Millea notes a paradigm shift within the SRFs to look at programs rather than projects. For instance, he views what’s going on in Onondega County more as a CSO-abatement program rather than a single wastewater treatment plant that might be addressing the problem.
“That’s the evolution of these kinds of approaches,” he says. “It’s the outcome that’s important and not necessarily a singular project.”
One example: a single street where Onondaga County installed recessed curbing and a small bioswale. “That type of project will never compete for funding with a large wastewater treatment project,” Millea points out. “That project has the same objective as our $70 million stormwater capture system, and if you put them all together and finance them all together, you get better bang for your buck. Also, the EPA and the state should be satisfied that you’re investing in projects that advance the purpose of the Clean Water Act.”
Millea notes that even with strong support at the leadership levels of the federal and state governments, “We still have a ways to go on culture change within organizations that regulate and construct these facilities. We’ve been building wastewater treatment plants, pipes, and pump stations for a long time, and it’s going to take a little bit more time to change cultures that have done one thing one way for a long time,” he says. “Now we need to do many different things in many different ways in a manner that we’ve never done before.”
Conference participants agreed that institutional preferences for long-established approaches and a fear of deviating from those is one of the biggest barriers to pursuing new solutions.
“In the government, there’s not a lot of incentive to take risks,” Millea says. “People don’t get big bonuses if they take a risk, and sometimes they may lose their job if they take a risk and fail. That’s one of the biggest barriers to overcome when you’re saying that we’re not going to do it the way we’ve done it in the last 20 years, and we’re going to put this bioswale into the street and let public officials and public employees know that we’re going to see how it goes, and nobody’s going to get in trouble if it doesn’t perform exactly as we thought it would.”
Building on Successes
Success stories like Philadelphia’s are helping to propel the issue of green infrastructure forward on a national level.
“Philadelphia has been working with the administration and the US EPA for a number of years on taking the vision of translating green cities to clean water goals,” says Neukrug. “Most recently, the US EPA and the city signed a partnership agreement, which strengthens the resolve and support of our two agencies to make Philadelphia the greenest city in America, using as one element for the transformation a CSO policy based on green infrastructure.”
Speranza served on a panel titled “Defining Municipal Green Infrastructure Benefits and Barriers” that addressed green infrastructure success stories. Speranza discussed innovative programs being implemented in communities where CH2M Hill works, such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Lancaster, PA, Onondaga County, NY, and Los Angeles, among others.
“I also discussed a project in Singapore that I had a chance to visit in July, turning a straight concrete drainage canal into a multifunctional urban oasis, integrating natural and cultural resources, infrastructure and land development to improve the quality of life in the community,” says Speranza. (More information on that project is available here.)
Shafer says he believes the White House’s increased interest in green infrastructure is a result of being on the other side of early learning curves through some of the municipal efforts.
“They’re seeing something that’s viable and seeing that at a lower upfront cost, it can be implemented to help reduce flooding and improve public safety and health,” he says. “We never had that federal interest displayed in such power as it was at the conference.”
As result of the conference, “There were clear themes that emerged from the working session around the virtues of an integrated, comprehensive approach, the value of sharing innovations bubbling up from the local level, looking for creative financing alternatives, and calculating and making visible the multifaced benefits of a green infrastructure approach,” says Speranza.
“I believe the work coming out of the conference will help provide a common framework for continued dialogue and action around these issues and across the many stakeholder groups involved,” she adds.
“The outcome of the conference for me was that the government faces something that needs to be implemented on a more wide-scale basis,” says Shafer. “We identified a lot of the barriers that are still out there on green infrastructure.”
Shafer says in addition to financing, there are technical, operational, and maintenance issues of concern for green infrastructure. He would like to see some standards developed.
“If the federal government could work with groups like the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the Water Environment Federation, and the American Water Works Association to create national standards for green infrastructure so that we knew what to expect from a rain garden, a bioswale, a green roof, or porous pavement in terms of initial capital costs, operation and maintenance costs, and how we finance it, that would be helpful,” he says.
“On the technical side, if they helped us with a national standard, that would be one huge step forward that we could then work down into the local levels and be more efficient,” he adds.
Last week’s conference was a step in the right direction, Shafer notes.
“I compliment Nancy Sutley and [EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson for pushing this effort to the forefront,” he says. “They sponsored this conference, bringing together a diverse caliber of people. That’s really going to help move the discussion forward.”
Other conference participants included representatives from the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, the Office of Management and Budget, the Water Environment Federation, ECO Asset Management Partners, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation.